ON: Marijuana Home-Growers Rejoice, But Will Their Gardens Survive Legalization?


They may call it weed, but what grows in Laurie MacEachern’s plot is more like the lush fields of corn near her rural home, southeast of Ottawa, than the goldenrod and wild parsnip in the ditch.

“Welcome to my garden,” she tells a rare recent visitor, surveying rows of luxuriant green plants that will be ready to harvest next month.

In an area the size of a suburban backyard, the 57-year-old grandmother grows enough medical cannabis to last her a year.

Her garden, tucked behind a locked gate with a motion-activated alarm and floodlights, costs her about $300 a year. Buying what she needs from a licensed producer would be more than her entire $11,000 pension.

“I’m anxious to have people understand how easily it can be done,” MacEachern said. “The licensed (medical marijuana) producers say it’s not like geraniums. … No, it’s more like tomatoes.”

“I’ve been trying to prove a point. I have less than nothing and it takes less than nothing to do this. This is going to be enough to keep me healthy for a year.”

MacEachern is among those jubilant to have regained ground in the quickly shifting regulatory landscape of medical marijuana in Canada.

As of this Wednesday, new federal rules will allow authorized patients to produce a “limited” amount of cannabis for their own use or to designate someone to grow for them – instead of buying from corporate producers.

It’s the fruit of a federal court judge’s ruling from February, which said that a 2014 decision to force patients to buy their medicinal pot from Health Canada-licensed producers violated their constitutional rights.

The federal government says the new regulations are only a stopgap to comply with the court decision, but among the growing questions is whether grow-your-own medical marijuana will survive legal pot.

Before MacEachern started using medical marijuana – on the advice of a leading pain specialist – she says she took as many as 27 pills a day, including OxyContin and Percocet, for a spinal injury, degenerative nerve damage and irritable bowel syndrome. She still couldn’t sleep, so she drank, and the pain and pills left her unable to keep the high-tech job she loved.

“Now I use nothing but cannabis,” said MacEachern, co-founder of the Medicinal Cannabis Patients’ Alliance of Canada, who argues medical marijuana patients should not be “steamrollered over” or forgotten.

Health Canada will post details on how to register and legally buy “starting materials” for growing marijuana – seeds and plants – when the new regulations take effect.

But the government warned the new regulations are an “immediate solution” to address the federal court decision in February. The judge, who said many of the experts warning of mould, fire and black market trade had an “almost religious fervour” against marijuana, gave the government until this month to come up with new rules.

Meanwhile, 28,000 people could keep growing under an injunction.

“These regulatory changes should not be interpreted as being the longer-term plan for the regulation of access to cannabis for medical purposes, which is presently being determined as part of the government’s commitment to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana,” Health Canada said in a statement.

Public consultations by the government’s legalization task force wrap up Aug. 29.

Liberal MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, who is handling the file, was asked if people would be allowed to grow their own pot.

“Unlike tomatoes,” he told the Toronto Star, marijuana poses significant social and health risks to Canadians. The science is clear it’s “not a benign substance.”

Despite this, medical marijuana has hit the mainstream, now recognized as a treatment for patients with illnesses such as AIDS, those undergoing cancer treatment and people with PTSD.

When Health Canada announced the new medical cannabis regulations earlier this month, the groups that spoke out to hail the change while advocating for more access for patients included the Arthritis Society.

“As the federal government develops its approach to regulating cannabis for recreational purposes, it is critical that the needs of patients remain in focus,” said president Janet Yale, who called for tax-free status and insurance coverage for medical marijuana. She has also asked the government to boost study of medical marijuana’s use, including establishing a centre of excellence for research.

Yale cited shared recommendations for new medical cannabis regulations with Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana.

The group’s founder, Jonathan Zaid, was the first person in Canada to get a private insurer to cover medical marijuana. He works to allow others to do the same by persuading insurance firms it will save them money.

He argues that being able to grow your own remains important for patients.

“That’s definitely a concern, in the initial announcement for the (new regulations), Health Canada and the government was very clear, this is just an interim regulation,” Zaid said.

“Potentially, down the road, with the task force looking into how they’re going to legalize it for recreational purposes, this could impact medical cannabis – not just home-growing but access on the whole.”

Zaid wants the government to keep the needs of medical marijuana patients in mind – which for those who can’t afford the commercial product or can’t find the strains of pot that help them most, includes home-growing. Some – such as MacEachern – say that growing the plant that makes them feel better, even if it’s just a few plants on a balcony, is part of a therapeutic effect.

“You can grow your own tobacco, you can make your own wine and beer – there are other somewhat-controlled substances where you can produce your own,” Zaid said. “Where patients can’t access the medicine that they require, they have to be able to produce their own.”

Many Canadians apparently agree.

A Forum Research poll found 56 per cent approved of the federal court ruling striking down the ban on homegrown medical marijuana even as Canadians are nearly split on whether legalized marijuana should include “grow your own,” with 48 per cent for and 42 per cent against.

Canopy Growth Corp., the company behind the marijuana growing plant Tweed in Smiths Falls, called the return of legal medical marijuana growing good news for patients and “the 95 per cent of people who don’t abuse the privilege of growing at home.”

However, while the company said it supports a patient’s right to grow, the “short-term initiative” with a broader overhaul on the horizon isn’t good policy. It pointed to the risk of diversion, abuse of plant limits and hamstringing of law enforcement.

Medical marijuana users are already ramping up to grow at home, like one west-end Ottawa man in his 40s with once-disabling anxiety and a sleep disorder.

Speaking anonymously, he said he used to take as many as six different pills per day. With medical marijuana, he is able to fall asleep and go to work every day – at a pharmaceutical company, perhaps ironically – without having panic attacks.

“It’s changed my life,” he said.

He has outfitted his basement with new wiring, ventilation and LED grow lights, but thinks he’ll make back his money within two harvests cultivated with the help of “old hippies.” He currently spends $900 a month with a licensed producer.

It will also mean being able to grow the strains that work best – the producer is often sold out – and being able to grow for his elderly father, who can’t afford cannabis oil, which is under study as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s legal now – why not?” he said.

Not every medical marijuana booster is so enthusiastic about homegrown.

Francois Hallé is a doctor and former army medic who serves as the medical and science liaison for Marijuana for Trauma Inc., which helps veterans with PTSD.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from cannabis is proven to work for PTSD, blocking the pathways in the brain that telegraph terrifying flashbacks, he said. Marijuana for Trauma is helping more than 4,000 clients at 11 “wellness centres” across the country and partnering with researchers to share their data.

Hallé fears homegrown cannabis, unlike the rigorously tested commercial product, could be contaminated or have inconsistent levels of the active ingredients, like cannabidiol, which helps people with chronic pain, as opposed to THC.

It also sends a message that stands in the way of selling the treatment to both the public and doctors, he believes.

“How can you make someone believe the science behind it by saying, ‘Let’s just grow it in our backyard?’” Hallé said. “How will the medical community be able to feel more comfortable prescribing cannabis to their patients if they cannot even establish what they are taking precisely?”

The government will now – for the first time – allow people to legally submit homegrown marijuana to private labs for testing, which advocates call a major step forward.

It’s something MacEachern, for one, has long wished she could do.

Some of her plants’ “genetics” came from a Kingston man who grew for his cancer-stricken wife, both of whom have since died. The man asked MacEachern to share the plants with other patients.

“He took care of his wife with what he grew in his backyard,” MacEachern said. “The last thing he said to me was, promise me you’ll never give up until we get our right to grow back.”

By the numbers

477: Canadians authorized as medical marijuana users in 2002

29,888: Canadians authorized in April 2013, with 67 per cent growing their own and 16 per cent having someone else grow it for them

Close to 70,000: Patients currently buying from 34 licensed producers

28,000: Estimate of patients allowed to grow their own under regulations repealed in 2014, who could keep growing under a Federal Court injunction

More than 500,000: Legal medical marijuana patients by 2020, as projected by investment firm Mackie Research Capital Corporation in a recent report

10 g: Average daily “dosage” reported by medical marijuana patients in 2013, which had continually increased since 2002, especially among home growers

70%: Home growers with 25 or more plants in 2013

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Medical Marijuana Home-Growers Rejoice, But Will Their Gardens Survive Legalization?
Author: Megan Gillis
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Website: Toronto Sun